Write Columbia's History
First Mother at the J-School
Sylvia Auerbach
Graduate School of Journalism 1960

Can youthful dreams come true?

In my case, yes.

When I was a student at the Philadelphia High School for Girls, I heard of Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, and dreamed of going there. But as my high school counselors told me, that was impossible. Journalism was a man's field; women couldn't stand the pace, the stress, and the potential dangers. Of course, no women were allowed at the J-School. Forget it. And I did.

But the spark still smoldered.

Many years later, having been an army wife, a secretary, a worker on a factory assembly line, a truant officer, a comparison shopper, etc., I nibbled again on my ambition to work in publishing. I landed a job as an "editorial assistant" (accurate description: secretary and coffee gofer) on the staff of the Library Journal, and got promoted to managing editor fairly quickly. The editor-in-chief, a graduate librarian, quit in a big huff one day. I became the editor as I took over her responsibilities—but without the title and, needless to say, the salary. No chance of becoming the editor-in-chief because I was not a librarian. Maddening.

Then, a lovely woman named Helen Slade Sanders, who had been one of the few female trade magazine editors, established a fellowship for a woman at the J-School. I figured I was too old (39). I already had one son in high school and another about to enter college, but I applied anyway. My college-bound son left for freshman orientation the day I went up to the J-School for an interview. As he waved goodbye, he said, "Goodbye, Mother. I hope you get into the college of your choice."

I did, and it was one of the best years of my adult life. Before 7:30 a.m., wife and mother: "Moooother, did you see my lunch?" "Honey, have my shirts come back from the laundry?" "Did somebody walk the dog?"

Then, forget domesticity. Run for the bus, squeeze into two subways. Arrive at the J-School at 9:00 a.m. sharp. Stretch your mind, write, write, write, suffer until your papers are returned, sharpen your skills, and learn a lot from the best and merciless professors. It was killing—and I loved every stressful minute of it.

There were, I think, 10 women in the class, all in their twenties, except me. All of us were determined to break out of the box of writing about home, family, and styles. We knew that the women's world was much bigger than that box. Print journalism was opening up for us. But women in radio? Don't be silly—their voices would never come across or be authoritative enough.

Could we stand the pace? We could and we did, and had successful careers that dumped these prejudices into the trash.

(Since there was also a priest in our class, the class of 1960 had the distinction of having both a mother and a father.)

I took my sons with me to one of our reunions. While waiting in the buffet line, I introduced them to one of the professors. He looked surprised and said that when the students' offspring were as tall as he was, it was time to quit. He left the following year. At a later reunion, I was introduced to a new student as the first mother to attend the J-School. She looked at me in surprise and said, "But you look so well-preserved." I tried to smile, but I had a vision of myself on a shelf in a bottle of formaldehyde.

I've been lucky. What I learned at the J-School led to varied editorial jobs, five books published, teaching at three universities, satisfying work, and much fun.

I still freelance, I'm writing a memoir, and I have no plans to retire.

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